When I first heard the word, the earth moved. It shifted distinctly beneath my feet.
Cancer. Though spoken quietly and with gentleness, it bellowed around the consultant’s small, functionally comfortable room. My father had late stage cancer.
Other words followed. Surgery; significant risk; advanced; large tumour; palliative care; sorry… not necessarily in that order.
He broke the deafening silence, squeezing my hand.
“Aye, well, you don’t get to my age without a brush with this sort of thing. I’ll have the operation. Bugger the risks. Send me home to recover – not to die.”
How would I tell my mum?
A week later, after a frightening Saturday night in A&E, I heard the word again.
“There’s a mass on your mother’s pancreas,” the doctor said. “There’ll be a biopsy but bloods indicate cancer. No, you’re right – not good at her age.”
That’s when a sinkhole opened in the shifting ground. Both patients on the same ward, in the same hospital; each with cancers, neither being offered guarantees of easily achieved best outcome. How had this crisis been visited on our family? Both of them? At the same time? What were the chances?
Their sweet, tired doctor – “Just call me Oliver” – communicated without words that we shouldn’t dwell on chances, odds or the unfairness life doles out indiscriminately and not uncommonly… because it can.
“This is tough for you,” he said. “Do what you need to do, we’ll do the rest. Life doesn’t stop, until it stops.”
So, since no fat ladies are singing quite yet, we’re doing what we can as another family attacked mercilessly by a cruel disease which seems forever to be ahead of the game.
We’re laughing as often as we can; speaking our love out loud and becoming acquainted with hospital life, which can be surprisingly cheerful – when the earth isn’t moving.
Dad has been wheeled or, on better days, walked to Mum’s bedside for a chat, a holding of hands, stroking of cheeks. It was their 65th wedding anniversary this week. Sadly he has moved now to another hospital in preparation for his op, so they missed sharing the day. But they’ve had that precious daily time together.
“We met when we were 17,” he told an affectionately fussing nurse who’d pinched a wheelchair from another ward for his date with his bride. “We were both on holiday in Blackpool.”
My mother opened one sleepy eye and managed a small smile.
“I should have gone to Scarborough.”
And they kissed.
We’ve laughed together with endlessly optimistic staff and at Brenda, the tireless, tottering hospital volunteer we’ve christened Two Soups – she’s the spit of that Julie Walters waitress character in those old Victoria Wood TV sketches.
Two Soups brought me a tea on the day I cracked tearfully and almost tumbled into the sinkhole.
“I’ve brought you a beaker, love,” she said, spilling as she handed over the mug. “Beakers are best for shock.”
We laughed until we coughed.
None of us expected to find humour, giggles or friendships under such testing circumstances. We’ve been gratefully surprised by an NHS community which has wrapped us all in comforting warmth. Apart from the car-parking charges – coldly ripping-off everybody at any and every painful opportunity.
But that’s the thing with the NHS. Never say it’s failing. It succeeds despite all attempts to break it.
That’s the way with hospitals. They’re not what they were. They no longer smell of disinfectant and fresh floor cleaner. Overriding aromas are of bad food and body odour.
But they’re staffed by people who care enough to take undeserved blows and smile through.
“Listen, pet. I’ve seen miracles performed here on a daily basis,” a young nurse whispered as I left her ward. “Dry your tears.”
And that’s the thing with life-threatening illness. It can floor you, shock and terrify, make you wail in momentary despair.
But it can’t crush love, hope, laughter. It can’t take away any of what lives well-lived have banked in shared hearts and minds.
And that – thanks largely to our uniquely caring NHS – is, in itself, a miracle.